On two occasions in the immediate post-World War II period, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to defeat the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and capture its final holdout in Taiwan.
In an attempted invasion of Kinmen in 1949, known as the Battle of Kuningtou (古寧頭), China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was fought back by the Republic of China (ROC) army under the KMT’s command. The second was the 823 Artillery Bombardment that began on Aug. 23, 1958 — a 44-day test of courage and resilience of the forces defending Kinmen. Both battles were ROC victories that played a formative role in the current “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait.
The battles’ legacies remain important for present-day Taiwan because of its “unresolved status” according to the official narrative of the CCP leadership, and therefore for Taiwan’s national security.
Monday marked the 63rd anniversary of the start of the 1958 bombardment. Commemorations of the event by KMT and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politicians entail a complex knot of factors ranging from the personal — the loss of life involved — to the historical — control of the facts — and the political.
Citing concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) chose not to travel to Kinmen and instead gave an address to a small group of military personnel in Taipei, saying how the “people of Taiwan — regardless of ethnicity or when they arrived — fought with one heart to defend the front line and Taiwan, showing the world the determination of Taiwanese to defend themselves.”
For Tsai and the DPP, a fine line needs to be trod with a commemoration that goes to the core of the politically fraught nature of the relationship between the ROC and Taiwan.
The president needed to give a message of unity in the face of a common foe — the CCP — without invoking differences with the KMT, which would have contradicted her message, and appeal to national resilience and Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, especially in the wake of criticism over her perceived overreliance on the US, given the ongoing situation in Afghanistan.
KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) and former New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) did make the trip to Kinmen.
Both are running in next month’s KMT chairperson election; politically, they both wanted to “own” the victories over the PLA on behalf of the KMT and its protection of the ROC, and therefore, in the party’s narrative, of Taiwan.
This was evident in Chu’s response to a journalist’s question, when he said that the DPP had little interest in the commemoration as it considers the event a historical battle between the CCP and the KMT.
He was referring to a comment made in 2018 by then-DPP deputy secretary-general Hsu Chia-ching (徐佳青), which she has subsequently said was taken out of context.
Chu also said that without the KMT, there would be no ROC, and by implication no Taiwan, which might be true, but so open to qualification and provisions as to be virtually meaningless.
Chu is right that the ROC prevented the CCP from taking Taiwan, but he omitted to say that any government of Taiwan would have fought the aggressor, or that the DPP did not exist at the time, nor would the KMT have allowed it to.
Critics might also say that without the KMT, there would have been no 228 Massacre, White Terror era or martial law, and that the KMT was not defending Taiwan at the time, but the base to which it had retreated and from which it planned to “retake the mainland.”
Beyond political agenda setting, Taiwan must remember the soldiers and civilians that fell during the two battles.
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